I should start this post with a kind of disclaimer. This will not be a normal review, partly because we didn't pay for any of the following and also because after so many years, and so many wonderful caviar- and champagne-soaked evenings in the glorious Soho location, the chances of my being even the least bit impartial about a brand-spanking-new Bob Bob are nearly zero.
So no, this won't be a normal review, but then Bob Bob Cité, like Bob Bob Ricard before it, is nothing like a normal restaurant, and almost defies criticism based on the usual criteria used for judging the success or otherwise of a place to eat. It's hugely reductive - and largely unfair - to say that not many people went to BBR for the food - they did, of course, because it was lovely, from their luxury fish pie glazed immaculately with the restaurant's logo, to their famous Eton Mess en perle which arrived in a meringue globe dissolved dramatically at the table. But even these theatrics inevitably played second fiddle to the extraordinary interior and rarefied atmosphere of the building itself, where every inch glowed with marble and brass, and backlit "Press for Champagne" buttons cooed seductively in the booths.
By employing the services of big-name chef Éric Chavot at the new site, Bob Bob Cité managed to grab a few headlines many months before their doors opened. Chavot won two Michelin stars when he worked at the Capital back in the day, and though I hate Michelin and everything they stand for, usually when on familiar - ie. French - ground, their bourgeois opinions aren't so easily dismissed. He is clearly a great chef, whose style fits around the super-luxe Bob Bob aesthetic wonderfully, and whose food would be a reason to visit even if you were to enjoy it in a reclaimed knackers yard under a railway bridge. They've upped the food game, in fact, to such a degree that it now stands alongside the best of Henry Harris' uber-gastropubs (the Coach in Clerkenwell, the Hero of Maida or the Crown in Chiswick) for this kind of thoughtful, precise, classical French cooking.
So let's stick with the food for a bit. This particular evening began with a glass of Krug champagne and 20g of Russian caviar because that's absolutely how all evenings should begin at Bob Bob. Presumably Chavot didn't have much involvement in this, or the excellent warm baguette which arrived at the same time, but whoever opened the caviar tin and poured the champagne did an excellent job. Service, needless to say, is just as sparkling as it is in Soho.
French Onion soup was the first real Chavot dish, and he played an absolute blinder. I can find quite a lot to enjoy in even quite a humble FOS, but when treated to good beef stock, and aged Comté, this classic really shines. One word of warning though - the next time I tackle one of these in a white T-shirt, I'm going to tuck a napkin down my neck. Because once the final morsels of glossy, beef-soaked caramelised onions had been mopped up, I looked like I'd gone for a swim in the stuff.
Duck egg "au plat" was a kind of posh brunchy affair, with a huge fried duck egg resting on top of addictively salty cubes of cured beef and pickled veg. One minor criticism that cropped up was that the advertised "Gruyère and truffle foam" played rather a subdued role, and though I'm sure Chavot put exactly the amount of "Gruyère and truffle foam" on the plate that he thought fit, I'm afraid when I'm promised "Gruyère and truffle foam", I want a lot of it. Otherwise, this was very lovely.
I love that Bob Bob Cité have snails on the menu, partly out of the usual foodie compulsion to appreciate the most unusual or unlikely ingredient on a menu, but also because I love the idea of eating such rustic French fayre in such an unlikely situation. They arrived, admittedly, slightly more fancied-up than usual, beneath a soft potato foam and studded with crunchy bacon bits, tasting earthy and rich and wonderful in their vivid green parsley sauce. Perhaps the French do know a bit about cooking, after all.
There are few more satisfying starters than steak tartare, and Bob Bob Cité's version has plenty to recommend it - good aged beef, the perfect balance of shallots and capers, a lovely soft quail's egg on top - even without 10g of Siberian caviar on top to turn it into the "Steak tartare impériale". Completely ludicrous, of course - I mean who on earth takes a perfectly decent dish and slaps a tablespoon of caviar on top - and yet, because this is Bob Bob and if anybody can get away with it, they can, it works. The seafood and the beef create a kind of extravagant surf'n'turf, every bit of it a joy.
Beef Wellington made great use of a different bit of cow - 35-day-aged fillet - presented first as a whole inside pastry, then taken away to be plated. Perfectly pink inside, once draped in truffle sauce it became the platonic ideal of a beef welly, immaculately executed and basically unimprovable in any way.
Lobster thermidor always struck me as a slightly bizarre thing to do to fresh seafood. I have a lot of time for many of the fine dining clichés that have been handed down through generations of mistachio'd and toque-hatted chefs - pommes Dauphinoise, tournedos Rossini, blanquette de veau to pick just three other Escoffier recipes - but loading a halved lobster with bechamel, egg yolks and cheese seems like a good way to simultaneously ruin both a cheese omelette, and a lobster. That said, the person who ordered this had absolutely nothing but praise for it, so perhaps I should wind my neck in.
Dover sole, served on the bone and topped with an interesting array of capers, gherkins and lemon, fell apart into nice meaty chunks and ate every bit as good as it looked. Classic French class.
Even sides were exemplary. Truffled mash was about 80% butter, which was entirely welcome, chips had a fantastic texture, crisp on the outside and creamy within, and some grilled hispi cabbage arrived charred and in a cloud of woodsmoke, as if it had just been lifted from the bonfire.
I'm not sure what happened to my photography in the final moments of my meal at Bob Bob Cité but there's every chance the surplus of champagne served to make me a little distracted. I have (vague) memories of being similarly... distracted after a vodka tasting evening at the Soho location, so clearly this is just something that happens when you put yourself in their hands. Anyway, desserts (as far as I know) were, like everything that came before, very French and very good. Rhum baba was soaked in alcohol (this is a good thing) and lemon meringue had all sorts of clever techniques happening at once, and bags of flavour in the lemon curd.
That's the food, then - all of it at least intelligently conceived and expertly constructed, a masterclass in French haute cuisine that lives up to every last penny of the rather 'haute' price points. People will come to Bob Bob Cité for the food, because it's great, and because fancy French, done as well as this, is almost a novelty in London in 2019 - blame changing trends and fashions, but also (mainly) blame rubbish hotel restaurants charging way too much for pretty poor examples of it. Eric Chavot's cooking is definitely worth the journey.
But if the food has stepped up a level, incredibly the design of the new place exists in a different stratosphere. I've been in some pretty fancy restaurants in my time, but Bob Bob Cité's extraordinary interior design feels genuinely otherworldly, like it's been lifted from some idealised futurist paradise. There's the attention to detail you'd expect from their fanatical approach to everything, from the dot-matrix display that ticks round the ceiling like a tongue-in-cheek nod to the local traders, and the hand-painted tableware emblazoned with an exquisitely tasteful font. But from the leather booths to the polished Art-Deco-by-way-of-Asgard chandeliers the place just sparkles. Just moving through it is like taking a mood-enhancing drug, one room in various brilliant shades of blue, another shining in pink and red. And as a backdrop to all that, floor to ceiling windows that provide a sweeping view over the Leadenhall's vast atrium and surrounding architectural marvels (the Gherkin, and the Lloyds building are neighbours). It's like eating and drinking on the set of some utopian Sci-fi. There is absolutely nothing else like it in the world, I'm sure.
So come for the food, by all means. Treat yourself to caviar and champagne, indulge in escargots and flat fish on the bone, and baked cheesey lobster. You'll enjoy it. You will. It's great. But if you agree that a large part of the, for want of a better word, experience of eating at the original Bob Bob Ricard is to be swept up in the grand theatrics of the room, resisting - and failing to resist - pressing the Press for Champagne button one last time, of knowing you're spending too much and drinking too much but never wanting it to stop, then I should warn you, this new site will test your resistance even further. If Bob Bob Ricard is the very definition of luxury, Bob Bob Cité is the future of indulgence itself - the new benchmark by which, from now on, anyone aiming to provide the ultimate restaurant experience will be judged. At any new opening across any of the bewildering number of new buildings that have swept across London in recent years, no matter how extensive the fit-out, no matter how big name the chef, expect to hear some variation of the following: "Well, it's good," they'll say, "but it's no Bob Bob Cité."
We didn't see a bill for any of the above, and given how much Krug and caviar was consumed, it could have been well north of £200/head. But it's worth pointing out that they do a chicken pie for £21 so you could go in, order that and a glass of Picpoul and escape for around £30. You won't do that - nobody will - but, you know, you could.
After so many years eating and writing about restaurants, I tend to flatter myself I can tell the good from the bad with a quick glance at a menu. And on paper at least, the Swan at Shakespeare's Globe is boldly and assuredly exactly my kind of place. Starters of English asparagus and duck liver custard, mains of wild garlic broth and rabbit with nettles, unusual strictly seasonal ingredients in interesting and tasteful combinations, it was clearly constructed by people who love eating and know how to express that love in words. I got as far as "Ox cheek & spelt risotto, cured bone marrow" before deciding my search for dinner on the South Bank was over, and ventured inside.
Things began well enough. Front of house found us a corner of a large sharing table to use as the rest of this large, bright restaurant was at capacity, which was nice of them, and cocktails were, if not entirely brilliant ("Rhubarb Negroni" had too much Campari and seemingly no rhubarb, and something called "Spring, Where Art Thou!" was too sweet), then at least enjoyable. By the time we'd ordered food, the mood was very much one of cheerful optimism.
Until it arrived. Firstly, a spelt risotto which looked the part until you realised the spelt had a very strange texture, possibly from some kind of mistake in the cooking process but I won't even bother trying to guess what, making it all a bit, well, slimy. Without the weird sliminess it might have been OK - it was all seasoned properly and it was a sensible portion size - but the shredded ox cheeks just got lost in the mush, and it wasn't much fun to eat.
Asparagus were even more upsetting. Presumably at one time these had been nice fresh vegetables, but having been grilled a long time ago, and left in the fridge, they were presented cold, chewy, and utterly lifeless. God knows who's idea it was to serve "chargrilled asparagus" fridge cold, but they need a serious talking to. Lardo was nice enough, and some lightly dressed salad was edible, but the "truffle jam" didn't seem to contain any truffle and had its bland sweetness didn't do anything to compliment anything else. Also it's worth noting both starters arrived barely a minute after we'd ordered them - how long had they been sitting around?
Any weak hope the starters were anomalies were crushed with the arrival of the mains. A dish of rabbit, nettles, artichoke and lobster should have me purring with delight, but the ballotined rabbit was a strange pasty texture, tasting only of the ham that had been used to wrap it, lobster was overcooked, the tail portion chewy and the claw hard, and the whole thing was barely above room temperature. Disappointment barely covers the emotions I felt as I glumy picked my way through it.
Brill - twenty six quid's worth of it - arrived accurately cooked, but entirely unseasoned, and was similarly difficult to eat. "Rolled leeks" were chewy and unpleasant, "Champagne sauce" is probably supposed to look like cuckoo spit but presumably not taste like it, and a large poached oyster heaved on top of the whole thing just looked clumsy and bizarre. This was not good food.
So what on earth happened here? How can a set of dishes that worked so well on paper, that made such exciting reading, turn out so dissapointing in reality? Ordinarily I'd walk away from an experience like this saddened and frustrated but completely baffled - with so much effort clearly having gone into the sourcing of ingredients, it makes no sense that there would be such a disjoint on application. And I would have remained baffled - £63 a head lighter, and baffled - had a few days later the subject of my dismal dinner came up in conversation with a friend. "Oh yes, the Swan poached Simon Ulph from the kitchens at St Leonard's. He spent ages reworking the menu and introducing some exciting new dishes, only for the management to say they wanted to start doing sandwiches. So he left."
Now, obviously take any such anecdotes with a pinch of Maldon salt - there are few less reliable sources of information than restaurant kitchen gossip - but you have to admit, it provides a rather neat explanation to what happened on Friday. A (by all accounts) talented chef is brought in to revamp a menu and reinvigorate a kitchen. He's barely started, possibly not even given enough time to fully train his team on the new dishes, when management have a fit of the nerves about the experimental direction the new chef is going in, and completely change his brief. Said chef leaves, and we're left with a "ghost kitchen" with a menu full of dishes nobody really knows how to cook.
Oh well, these things happen. I'd had such a good run for a while, I suppose I was long overdue a bad meal. If nothing else, it's taught me to look out for Simon Ulph's next move because I really want to know if that rabbit, nettle and lobster dish lives up to the thing I've invented in my head, and I do hope the Swan manage to get their kitchen back on track, with or without the sandwiches. Meantime, I can only suggest you avoid the place. 5/10
The rise of the rural farm/gastropub has been one of the more notable food stories from the last few years. When once it would have been enough to namecheck your butcher or fishmonger, or make some vague promise to "work with local suppliers", perhaps growing a handful of herbs in a windowpot if you felt particularly Felicity Kendall about things, these days if you're not raising your own chickens, keeping your own honeybees and up at dawn foraging for wood sorrel and wild garlic then you really need to pull your socks up. You mean you buy in your edible flowers? Must do better, darling.
The Small Holding in Kent, then, is right on the cutting edge of this do-everything, holistic approach to fine dining (I'm not sure how they feel about the fine dining label, but I think anywhere serving a 9+ course tasting menu, albeit at the relatively barganous £50/pop, is fine dining) and the sheer effort to which they've gone to produce absolutely as much as they possibly can, is pretty impressive. In a relatively small patch of land are squeezed polytunnels of tomato plants, sweetcorn and strawberries, raised beds of fennel, carrots and radish, cauliflower, cabbages and chives, neat rows of broad beans and garden peas growing up bamboo supports and alongside all the vegetables a large chicken and duck enclosure, and a pig pen occupied by half a dozen rare breed Berkshire pigs. On top of this, we were taken just outside the grounds of the restaurant itself to see where wild strawberries, edible thistles, and a dozen other bits and pieces that would find their way into our lunch, grew in hedgerows on the edge of a small wood.
It's an idyylic spot, of course, lush and green and absolutely ideal for an operation like this, and it's tempting to think that you could just pull stuff out of the ground, shake off the soil and serve it and you'd win a couple of AA rosettes by default. But though this stripped-back approach may have some fans amongst chefs with regard to prep time, fortunately Will Devlin the head chef at the Small Holding has done his time at Michelin-starred central London hotel restaurants and with the Gordon Ramsey group at Pétrus, and knows exactly the best way of presenting the bounty on his doorstep.
Lunch began with a few nibbles on the terrace, including a couple of radishes that we literally saw being pulled out of the ground a few moments before they arrived trimmed and washed and sat in a little herb mayonnaise. So perhaps there is a place for the ultra-stripped-back approach after all. They were lovely little things - crunchy and with a sweet, cucumber-y flavour in place of the usual pepperiness.
Pork gyoza were nicely crisp and dry, and contained a good amount of pork. Something stopped me from asking if this was from one of the same pigs we could see happily truffling through the mud at the end of the allotments. Perhaps just in that moment I'd rather not have known.
And these were incredible - a citrussy, fluffy goat's cheese inside a delicate beetroot meringue casing, which dissolved in the mouth and released a beautiful hit of vegetable and dairy all in one go. I know beetroot and goat's cheese is a pretty tried and tested combination, but there's no point denying yourself such treats just because they're familiar. I mean I'm quite familiar with cheese on toast, too, but I'm not about to get bored of it any time soon.
Normally when running through a tasting menu like this I try and point out which elements are grown by the restaurant and which are bought-in, but at the Small Holding it's easier to do the opposite. So from this mini hot dog of caramelised carrot and kimchi, I assume only the miso was sourced elsewhere. But who knows, given their attention to detail elsewhere it wouldn't surprise me at all if they fermented their own soy beans. Very good it was anyway, meaty and rich with a nice note of chilli.
Asparagus from a farm up the road came pressed inbetween punchy slices of a local Camembert-style cheese, and were draped in translucent slivers of lardo. Very fine ingredients indeed, and topped with some wild garlic flowers, sweet and allium-y rather than overwhelmingly garlicky.
The next course was a bit of an experiment, and I don't think was part of the usual menu. This was not, as it first appeared, a slab of foie gras but something called "Foie Royale", developed in Amsterdam to be a cruelty-free alternative to foie. It still contains real goose, but the fat and normal (ie. non-artificially fattened) liver are pressed together under high pressure to create something if not quite exactly like the real thing then close enough to perform as a perfectly adequate cruelty-free option. I think Will just had some in and wanted to know what we thought of it, and it was nice enough although I think if I wanted an alternative to foie gras I'd be more inclined to go down the chicken liver parfait route. Still, it was interesting, and the beetroot purée and fresh yoghurt it came with were both excellent.
Next a beautiful slab of halibut we'd seen be delivered earlier that day, with a lovely golden crust, surrounded by various peas and herbs. All I ask with dishes like this is that the fish is seasoned properly and not overcooked, and that's not always a give. This was immaculately treated.
The next course kept up the high standard of raw product, but there's part of me wishes the chicken had been as warm as the egg yolk on top, rather than quite chilly. Still, it all had a great flavour, and I loved the wild garlic pesto.
Spelt bread belied its rather unassuming appearance to have a quite brilliant texture and taste - "spongey" isn't often used as a positive adjective but I mean it as a compliment here, as the crumb had a structure at once dense and supremely easy to eat. With it were chicken skin butter, and if you can eat chicken skin butter without enjoying it there's something wrong with you, and - somehow even more impressive - a wild garlic version which was, like the flowers on the asparagus course, sweet and vegetal instead of overtly garlicky.
Well into the main courses now, and I could see what they were trying to do with this slow-cooked pork jowl and white beans, it just didn't have quite the depth of flavour to lift it above merely "decent". There was nothing particularly wrong with any part of it - the pork was nice and moist, the beans soft and pleasant, but the sauce was a bit thin and it needed a more concentrated stock to really make it shine.
But we were soon back on track with this hogget, presented as a pink fillet and braised shoulder (I think, or leg) which had all of the concentration of flavour missing from the pork, and then some. This dish made the most of a clearly wonderful main ingredient (from a farm down the road, as if you even had to ask) by treating it to one of those lovely split sauces the best restaurants do so well, and some foraged cabbage-style plant (your guess is as good as mine) for iron. Absolutely brilliant, every bit of it.
Desserts began with a beetroot ice cream topped with ants, and in case you're one of those people still on the fence on the whole issue of edible insects, let me assure you that these made a very positive case. The acid (formic, I believe) in their abdomens provides an acid hit somewhere between lemon juice and the stuff that makes Haribo's sour, and if you've ever polished off a whole pack of those in one afternoon (don't deny it), you'll know how addictive that can be.
The main dessert was a strawberry sorbet with some macerated strawberries. All fresh out of the garden, all very lovely, but the way they'd done the sorbet deserves a special mention, as it was studded with some kind of wheat or oat that meant every mouthful turned into a kind of strawberry-flavoured paste in the mouth. I thought the effect was quite enjoyable, but in the interests of balance I should point out that my lunch companion really didn't get on with this texture experiment at all. Full marks for trying something new, though.
After some local blue cheese and a selection of petits fours, that was it, and even if you remove the foie gras dish from the above which as I said I think was extra, that's still a huge amount of incredibly good food for £50 a head. Even the cheese is included in that, which seems more than generous to me. In fact we were enjoying ourselves so much that despite the restaurant very kindly covering the cost of the food, and taking the time to give us a tour of the gardens and foraging routes (they do a foraging course/lunch experience for £145/person), we still managed to rack up a booze bill of £100/head. But hey, you know, no regrets.
On the train back to London, as the effects of the glass of local brandy wore off, I tried to think objectively about where the Small Holding fits in amongst the many kitchen gardens and gastropubs that are springing up around the country, each striving to offer a more intensely local, strictly seasonal experience. The idea of starting a farm just to supply one restaurant is possibly not new, and of course there have always been the Manoirs and Moor Halls with millions to throw at a walled garden with team of full-time gardeners to keep it all running, but the ambition and attitude of the Small Holding does genuinely feel like something new, a self-contained virtuous circle of excellent produce turning into top-quality dishes, all organic and self-sustaining, with wild plants and herbs growing alongside cultivated vegetables, with nothing to decide what makes it onto the menu other than what's the absolute best on the day. I wonder if one day there'll be a backlash against all this, and the trendiest new opening of 2021 will be a city-centre gilded palace serving nothing but tinned Spam, but until then it's places like the Small Holding I'm going to look for inspiration, the true future of regenerative agriculture and farm-to-table eating, and a bloody good feed into the bargain.
I was invited to the Small Holding and didn't pay for the food, but covered drinks ourselves.
There are lots of rubbish steakhouses in London. One of my earliest posts was of an evening at Angus Steakhouse on Coventry Street, where I suspected I was going to have a terrible time and absolutely did, but in the end of course what I or any of the readers of my blog thought about the food at that awful place was of profound insignificance. Nine years on, Angus Steakhouse, and Steak & Co., and Black and Blue, and countless other terrible tourist dive steakhouses are still with us because they don't need anything so frivolous as good food, and good reviews, to make money. They just need a highly visible West End location, a huge number of visitors naive enough to be shaken down for their tourist dollar at least once, and a gross profit per dish that would make a 5-star hotel room service menu look like a school canteen.
Yes, there are a lot of rubbish steakhouses in London, and there always will be. STK, though, is not one of them. However much it looks at first glance like a Croydon nightclub (disclaimer: I have never been to a nightclub in Croydon, but I strongly suspect a lot of them look like STK), and however much they may court the Instagram crowd in the manner of places like Sketch with their signature lighting schemes and plush décor, where it matters the food offering is considered, classy, and generally worth the money being asked for it. Which is definitely not true of Sketch, take it from me.
Anyway, to STK. The first thing I do in any steakhouse, and I recommend you do the same - it's a great control variable, is order a martini. This came in a frozen glass (tick), with a twist (tick), was not too dry (tick) and was made with Bombay Sapphire (IMMEDIATE FAIL AND DISQUALIFICATION). In a world where Beefeater exists, I will never understand why anyone's house pour should be Bombay Sapphire - it's horrid stuff. Nevertheless, it was a cold martini, so there was still something to enjoy.
The house bread at STK is this bizarre thing. It's a large brioche bun, topped with blue cheese butter, alongside a little pot of bright green chimmichurri. None of it should work together, or ever has worked together historically as far as I know, and yet, you know what, it was quite nice. Sweet brioche, salty blue cheese butter, and a little dipping pot of herb and garlic. Yeah, it's weird dipping bread and butter into oil, and there was quite a lot of different flavours going on, but none of them were jarring. And how much more interesting, in the end, than the usual white roll.
But I imagine you'll be wanting to know what the steaks were like. First up, my Dedham Vale sirloin (dry aged to 28 days apparently, which I always think is the right amount of time to dry age steak). If you're used to the super-charred Basque style then the appearance of this rather timidly-grilled specimen may come as somewhat of a disappointment. However, through pinpoint seasoning and by virtue of the fact the steak itself was clearly high quality - powerfully flavoured and with a texture just the right side of tender - that I polished the whole thing off incredibly easily. Which anyone who knows me will tell you, is a rare thing indeed. The less said about a horrid "peppercorn sauce" that tasted of sugared wallpaper paste the better, although the red wine jus was quite nice.
USDA fillet came topped with a mushroom, because you could, and why the hell not, and was similarly seasoned and cooked perfectly accurately. As expected, and desired, the USDA steak was more about buttery mouthfeel and that addictive melty texture than the more distinct flavour of grass-fed cow, but this was still a Nice Steak. You'd hope so, too, for £39 for 200g of it, but that's USDA for you. The Dedham Vale was £26, which is fantastic value and the one I'd go for if I was to return.
Sides also acquitted themselves admirably. Mac & cheese was full of the good stuff, and with a lovely golden brown crust of grilled cheese on top. To be perfectly honest I barely had a taste of this before it disappeared, but I suppose that just shows you how good it was.
Fries were great, which is always a relief - crisp and dry and nicely seasoned. And broccoli with chilli, pine nuts and pecorino was classic combo done very well. So no complaints there, either.
It feels like damning with faint praise to say STK could have been a lot worse, but I don't mean that in a cynical way. A flashy imported US chain self-consciously occupying a prominent West End location, with an equal emphasis on clubbing and cocktails than steaks and service, it could so easily have been an utter car crash, falling inbetween two conflicting priorities and pleasing nobody. That even I, a cynical steak-obsessed food blogger with an aversion to late nights and loud music so extreme I come out in hives if I'm not in bed by 10pm, managed to enjoy my evening here is a testament to, despite appearances, a kitchen team that by and large know what they're doing and service (with the usual caveat that they knew I was reviewing) that didn't put a foot wrong. Swap out the Bombay Sapphire from the martinis and rework that peppercorn sauce and I'd find even more to like. But even in its current form, STK is quite the thing.
Postscript: As I occasionally try to do on the back of a comped invite, I went back to STK for lunch to sample a bit more of the menu, in this case hoping to try their burger. Steakhouse burgers are usually fantastic things - in good steakhouses at least - using the cheaper cuts of the dry-aged animals available on the full steak menu to make a luxurious high-end sandwich. As it turns out, though, STK do not do a burger, despite what their lunch menu from January would have you believe. So I ended up with a couple of wagyu sliders, which were fine, but not at all what I was after. So I'm afraid as a steakhouse that doesn't do a steakhouse burger, they lose a point. Service was still efficient, except the bill came not only with a space for extra service to be added (despite it being included already), but the card machine tried the same trick as well. And to that I ask - for the occasional numpty you manage to con out of an extra tip or two, is it really worth the aggro caused to all your other customers? Or indeed, another dropped point in a review...
I was invited for the main meal at STK and didn't see a bill, but paid for the sliders at lunchtime myself.
There is a restaurant in Chicago, where it's very difficult to secure a reservation, named a single word beginning with 'A', serving an eclectic modern American tasting menu and which has been showered with Michelin stars and countless other accolades since it opened.
You can see the joke I'm limping towards, I'm sure, so I won't labour the point. In the world of international jet-set fine dining, Grant Achatz's Alinea is Chicago, and Chicago is Alinea, and whenever I mentioned I was taking a weekend trip to the Windy City, the natural assumption was that I'd booked myself in there. I did try, of course, and put my name down on the standby list, but to be honest I wasn't completely distraught it didn't happen this time. Firstly, because thanks to an absolutely wonderful few days in this fantastic city, I knew with utter certainty I'd be back. And secondly, because the full-whack tasting menu at Alinea is $400 without tax and service, and paying over $700/head on dinner is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of spend I'd need a good few years to prepare myself for.
So hardly a budget option itself, next to that Acadia's $200/head menu looks like something approaching a bargain. And it's hard to imagine the welcome into this spacious, luxuriously-appointed dining room could be bettered anywhere else in town. Bundling in wet and shivering from the snowstorm outside (Chicago's weather is completely mad) I joined a room full of immaculately turned out front of house staff and blindingly attractive and well-dressed guests feeling like I'd somewhat underestimated the effort Chicagoans put into evening wear. These people know how to impress.
And though there was plenty to gawp at in the room, what turned up on the table gave it more than a run for its money. First, after a nice cold glass of Franciacorta, were these little corn puffs containing pickled anchovy and "ramp" pesto, which is I believe a North Americanism for wild garlic. Prettily constructed, with a nice set of contrasting textures, only a vaguely underpowered anchovy let it down - perhaps I'm spoiled with the ones Brindisa import into London. Still, not bad.
"Herbed waffle with honey butter" was really no more than the sum of its parts, and if I'm going to be completely brutal, a bit pointless. Everyone knows what waffle and butter tastes like, and to present it as a canapé in a setting like this just seemed clumsy. It wasn't even a particularly good waffle, being a bit chewy and cold.
Better - much better - was this little arrangement of real caviar and jerusalem artichoke purée (they call them sunchokes there apparently), in a sauce of "infused whey" which was almost impossible to describe but was kind of umami-rich and silky without being overwhelmingly cheesey. A set of flavours I've never had the pleasure of having together before, and a genuinely intelligent and innovative idea, this was exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to discover at Acadia.
Shima aji (mackerel) came next, fatty and fresh under its Japanese-style glaze, its rich flavour profile bolstered by a slice of foie gras and filled out by warm, fluffy rice. I've enjoyed the combination of fatty fish, foie gras and rice on a number of occasions - eel works as well - and this was another reminder that when it comes to seafood, the Japanese know a thing or two.
I absolutely adored the next course, an intensely-flavoured shrimp dumpling thing speared onto a sprig of rosemary, over a chilled mushroom and dashi broth. It was another example of how the best of Japanese fine dining can be both sophisticated and accessible, complex yet beguiling, all at once - it flatters you with technique and intricate flavours whilst still being hugely enjoyable to eat.
"Penobscot Bay lobster" (Maine, where much of the US' lobster comes from) had fairly subtle flavour and a texture just ever-so-slightly the wrong side of chewy, but still went down well enough. Part of me wishes it had come in a bowl which would have held the sauce a bit better - spread out over a flat plate it looked a bit lost, and cold - but I'm sure they knew what they were doing.
The next course turned back to France for inspiration. Chicken heart, snails and morel mushrooms were laid across a stick of fried bread, above a nice powerful chicken broth. All of it very tastefully done and hard to criticise too harshly except perhaps I'm used to the fire and flavour of grilled chicken hearts over the poached used here, and just missing that extra touch of charcoal-fired magic. Again though, it was 99% of the way there.
Cobia - a species of fish new to me but also known as 'black kingfish', 'black salmon' or 'ling' according to Google - arrived as geometric square with a lovely golden crust on top and bright white flesh inside. My menu tells me this came with kohlrabi and squid ink, although these elements clearly didn't make much of an impact - all I remember is that the fish itself was incredibly salty, strange as everything else had been seasoned immaculately. Even so, and very conscious of the fact I have been moaning about minor niggles here far more than they affected us on the night, it was still an enjoyable bit of fish.
Next dish had rather a lot going on, so I'll list the description in full - "Bonemarrow custard, peekytoe crab, veal cheek, sunflower seed". That's offal, shellfish and red meat all in one dish, and yes it did take a bit of getting used to. I'm wary of suggesting with too straight a face any way a two-Michelin-starred restaurant could improve one of their dishes, but the lack of a binding sauce meant that the individual parts fought with more than complimented each other, and a sweet brioche bun filled with some kind of truffle aioli served on the side didn't really add to the cohesiveness. Again, I didn't hate it - far from it - but it was just less than satisfying.
I don't want to unfairly generalise about the baking culture of a country of 330m people, and yes I am aware of Tartine in San Francisco and various other excellent craft bakeries dotted around the country, but by-and-large, bread in America is terrible. So it was a very nice surprise indeed to find that Acadia bake the best rosemary and potato sourdough I've had the pleasure of sampling there OR back home - with a delicate dark crust and sticky crumb, it was absolutely a match to anything served in Europe. The wholewheat sourdough was only slightly less successful, and one of the butters was quite vegetal and strange, but whoever's in charge of bread at Acadia can give themselves a pat on the back. I Will say though, that with one further savoury course to go, it was a bit of a strange point in the meal to serve it. It would have been very handy indeed for soaking up leftover sauces earlier in the evening.
So yes, one final savoury course, and it was lamb - a meat much rarer in North America than elsewhere, perhaps going some way to account for the fact it didn't have much flavour. Rather anaemic looking and desperately in need of a bit of crisp and colour from a grill, it didn't really do much for me, and I found much more to appreciate in the charred lettuce by its side.
First dessert was durian ice cream (not pictured, sorry - above was coconut ice cream pre dessert which was perfectly nice). Now, I don't know if you're aware, but durian is famously one of the most foul-smelling fruits on the planet, usually banned from hotel lobbies and other public spaces in the countries where its grown. And yet fans of the fruit, if they're to be believed (and I have my doubts) say that the flesh, if you ignore the aroma, is sweet and caramely. Well, I'm afraid this ice cream tasted like durian smells, of rotten flesh and disease, and lingered on the breath for the rest of the evening. Maybe it is possible to make a durian ice cream that doesn't make me want to hurl it to the other side of the room, but this wasn't it.
Anything from this point on was tainted by the lingering stench of durian, so do bear that in mind when assessing my reaction to it. Lychee-sakura raindrop cake was, like all raindrop cakes, utterly pointless, tasting only very marginally of lychee, nowhere near sweet enough, and with an unpleasant too-solid texture.
Guava and black sesame gateau was much more pleasant, with what looked at first glance like meringue slices actually turning out to be frozen Greek yoghurt - a lovely culinary joke - although the black sesame base itself was a bit cloying.
Finally, fig and cascara hot chocolate, just a really nice cup of hot chocolate really - I didn't taste much in the way of coffee but then I'm not a coffee drinker anyway. Over some very prettily marbled salted caramel truffles, we paid the bill - a touch over $300 each, which seemed more than fair, and before long we were struggling back to Ravenswood in the snow in an Uber.
Before I got going on the above review, I was pretty sure I was going to settle on a score of 8/10 for Acadia. Though I had niggles here and there with the savoury courses, overall I did find more to like than dislike about the food, and matched with the usual glowing North American service and in that beautiful room full of beautiful people, it all seemed to write the story of a thoroughly enjoyable fine dining experience.
But then as I thought more and more about what we'd been given, away from the cosy haze of the matching wines, particularly the desserts which were very up and down, it became clear that there was slightly too much to criticise to qualify for the Premier League, and so 7/10, objectively, feels more appropriate. And I don't know of any chef ever happy with a 7/10, especially one operating at this level, so apologies to everyone involved for being the bearer of bad news. All that said, I don't regret a single moment of the evening, or a single dollar spent, and I'm sure even far more expensive restaurants also with a name beginning with 'A' are equally likely to have off-days. And if they do, you'll read it here first. 7/10
Well, who'd have thought it? After 8 years of public votes, and 7 trips to restaurants varying in quality between dreadful and downright dangerous, for whatever reason in 2019 you lot picked as a review subject not an all-you-can-eat buffet in Croydon or a Piccadilly Circus themed tourist trap but a famous old dame of Mayfair dining. Le Gavroche has been doing its thing since 1967 and has remained under the stewardship of the same family - the Rouxs, first Albert now Michel Jr - the entire time. In a city where chefs are lucky to last a couple of years in a particular location, it's quite the feat.
So, it's old, and it's traditional, and it's expensive. These things I knew about Le Gavroche before setting foot in the place, and were expected - in fact, I'd have been disappointed if it hadn't have been these things. As to the quality of the food served, that was more of an unknown. I had detected more than a hint of archness, of knowing smiles and raised-eyebrows, from a section those who had cast their vote for the place. After 7 years of dreadful meals inflicted by those who wanted to see me suffer for my art, had a majority of my readership really had a change of heart and starting dabbling in altruism? Something seemed... fishy.
It all started well enough, though. It's impossible not to be charmed by the welcome at Le Gavroche. Staff are clearly well-practised and while the style is slick and professional, it's also friendly and personable - a tricky balance to pull off. The menus, at least the A La Carte, was somewhat less friendly - overwhelmingly French and ludicrously priced (£68 for a starter of stuffed artichoke, anyone?), it seemed the only way of spending anything less than a crippling amount was to confine yourself to the "Business Lunch", served weekday lunchtimes only and the reason I'd have to take a half day off from work (did I mention I suffer for my art?). For your £74 you get three courses, a half bottle of wine per person, plus a few bits and pieces. If the food had been decent, it could have been, well, if not exactly a bargain then at least A Good Lunch In Mayfair.
I said "if". First to arrive were canapés, one a little pastry casing containing curried cabbage topped with bresaola, which tasted of wet vegetables, and another which if it wasn't Philadelphia on toast, they've wasted some effort in the kitchen to end up with something tasting exactly like Philadelphia on toast. Sure, canapés aren't everything, and it's not like anyone's going to sit down to these and then head home, but seriously, guys. Seriously? As an introduction to 2-Michelin-starred Mayfair dining, I've had more impressive nibbles at my nan's.
There was another extra, apparently "salted veal with herb mayonnaise". I say "apparently" because, much like the canapés, it was so completely unremarkable more or less any trace of the taste of it had been wiped from my brain before I hit the tube home, and a couple of days later after staring at the photo for a good few minutes and grilling the person I went to lunch with - who also had no clue what it was - I ended up emailing Le Gav bookings to see if they could help out. So yeah, "salted veal with herb mayonnaise". Ham on toast, basically. Something else my nan used to do quite well.
This is pumpkin soup with pumpkin biscuits, or rather "Velouté de Potimarron et petit sable", which was fine as pumpkin soups go but hardly earth-shattering and not even able to boast the super-fluffy texture of the finest veloutés I've been served by other top French restaurants. If I had been served this in a local pub I'd have been quite happy, but here?
Beef tartare was solid, perhaps a bit mayonnaise-y but easily enjoyed, except I really don't understand why they decided to confit the egg yolk. Part of the joy of a beef tartare is smushing the runny yolk into the mince and making it all even more rich and silky. Here, the yolk was the texture of spreadable cheese and didn't really combine very well.
As I'd heard so much about the Gavroche triple-cheese soufflé beforehand, we'd asked if we could add it in as an extra course. We were happy to pay for this privilege, but the staff (did I mention how lovely the FOH are?) decided not to charge us in the end, which was a very kind gesture. And happily, the soufflé itself was my favourite course of all, some very clever cheffy techniques creating what can best be described as a cheese-flavoured cloud, albeit a cloud so deceptively rich and filling it gave the impression if you threw it into water it would sink. Still, great fun.
My main course was herb-roast chicken with potato and asparagus. Much like the soup, if you'd have been served it in a gastropub for about £20 you couldn't complain much - the potatoes were a bit chewy and the sauce could have been a bit more substantial - but this is surely some way short of what you might expect to be served anywhere showered in Michelin stars. It's some way short of what I expected to be served, at the very least. Meat and two veg, chicken and gravy.
I'm being snarky, I know - but how much of the above would you place in the repertoire of a £100/head Mayfair fine dining establishment, and how much would look right at home on the menu of a mid-range London gastropub? Picking an example completely at random, the Drapers Arms in Islington has served a very good beef tartare in the past, know how to knock up a good soup and I'm fairly sure would consider cream cheese on toast far too common for their elegant local audience. And there's probably an argument to be made that they deserve a Michelin star on a good day but they'd be the first to tell you they're not exactly playing the same game as Dinner by Heston Blumenthal or the Ledbury.
I promise I won't go too down the Michelin rant path, but there's a point worth making here. Time and time again, Michelin have demonstrated that the one thing they seem to value above all other aspects of a restaurant experience is not the food on the plate or value for money, but fancy surroundings and a name they recognise above the door. I can't knock any contribution the Roux family have made to the culinary progress of our nation, but Le Gavroche is just not comparable to the best of the rest London has to offer, and in fact is barely better than most 1 stars. And though I've never been there myself, I'm reliably informed that the idea Michel Roux Sr's Waterside Inn deserves the top 3 stars is, in a word, laughable. At the risk of repeating myself, it frustrates me no end how much these accolades mean to chefs and restaurateurs when the criteria for handing them out is so backward.
Anyway back to Mayfair. A friend's beef shin (I think) looked the part and was declared "very nice", so let's assume everything was OK there. Not exactly a scintillating presentation, but fine.
The Le Gavroche cheese board is rightly famous, and I can only imagine the kind of waves it would have made back in the day when the only cheese you could pick up from an English cheese shop was Red Leicester and Cheddar. These days of course, there are many boards that will give it a run for its money, not least Medlar in Chelsea and of course my beloved Chez Bruce in Wandsworth, but this was still an excellent selection, all kept perfectly and, in keeping with the excellent service, offered in generous amounts.
The main thing I remember about this rhubarb-based dessert was that the choux bun on the left there tasted of absolutely nothing - not sugar, not fruit, not pastry, not anything. Which is quite an achievement for an item presumably containing at least some of those things. I think the sorbet on the right was better, but I mean by this point I'd just completely lost interest - I'd decided around the point of the canapés that Le Gavroche wasn't for me, and nothing since had convinced me otherwise.
The bill came to £91/head. Yes, you can pay more in Mayfair - and you can pay a lot more at Le Gavroche - but I could hardly hold much of the above as an incentive to take out a second mortgage and go crazy on the full A La Carte. Perhaps, out of everything, the soufflé hinted most towards the kind of thing those early Michelin inspectors fell for, and I'm more than happy for even the most religiously traditional French food to be held up alongside the best of Modern British, at whatever the price point. I just don't think, in 2019, that Le Gavroche is where you should start.
Anyway, I should end this post on a high note. Despite its flaws, lunch at Le Gavroche is by far the most pleasant public vote outing I've experienced, and I wish to extend a big "thank you" to everyone who voted for it above anywhere else touristy, terrible or seedy. In the end, it was a more a lesson in how messed up the Michelin award system is than anything else, but none the less interesting for that, and hey, no regrets. I doubt I'll be back, and I can't exactly enthusiastically suggest anyone else does either, but as a reminder of London's culinary past, and for that sterling service, perhaps there should remain a place in the world for the old girl. The past, as they say, is a foreign country. They do things differently there.
Sorry about the terrible photos - it was incredibly dark in there, and after a couple of attempts with my big camera, I realised it wasn't working and switched to my iPhone.
A few weeks ago, during a surprisingly in-depth discussion about crab bisque (what do you mean you've never had an in-depth discussion about crab bisque), someone mentioned that famed Covent Garden seafood spot J Sheekey's had a version on the menu for a very reasonable £9. So one lunchtime soon after I found myself in the corner of the plush dining room, beneath a photo of Dame Judi Dench, tucking into a very accomplished bisque, involving huge chunks of crab in a rich, thick broth. With mounds of fresh baguette to mop up the dregs (which they offered to replenish twice), cosseted by service from surely one of the most practiced front of house in town, and ice water to drink, the entire bill, even including a £2.50 cover charge, came to £15.
And it got me thinking. How many restaurants in London do we dismiss as "expensive" or "special occasion only" where it's actually possible to sneak in for a single starter or a lunchtime special and leave with a bill of about the same size as a cinema ticket? How about settling into a booth at Bob Bob Ricard and having an Egg St Petersburg (£8.50)? Or a pea & mint soup in the shining surroundings of the Holborn Dining Room (£9)? Or even a hot dog and french fries (£7.50) in the ultra-lux Delaunay in Aldwych? The service, the surroundings and the nice soft towels in the toilets are the same whether you're spending £300 on caviar and draining the top end of the wine list or just having a bowl of soup, and why shouldn't they be? There's no minimum spend.
So I knew Simpson's was going to be expensive, that much I was prepared for. I had hatched a plan to share oysters as a starter, share a main and order chips to fill up on, which should give us a fair idea of the kind of thing Simpson's is about without having to take out a 2nd mortgage. It's a grand old dining room attached to the Savoy Hotel, and the markups were always going to be a bit punchy, but surely there's a way of negotiating a budget option?
Well, we tried. Admittedly we didn't try very hard with the oysters, as we decided to go for the natives (£30 for six, about as much as I've ever paid for oysters anywhere), but it was coming to the end of the season and I was worried this would be my last chance until next year so decided to push the boat out. They were nice big healthy specimens but rather disconcertingly room temperature as they'd been served on pebbles instead of ice. We survived this time, but ever since a distressing incident with a room temperature oyster a few years back which incapacitated me for 24h I've tended to be a bit wary if my seafood feels like it's been treated less than optimally.
They very kindly offered to split a single Beef Welllington portion (£42) into two, and I'm glad they did because I think eating twice this amount would have been quite tricky. The Wellington was great - perfectly medium rare inside and with a delicate surrounding of mushroom duxelle and thin, crisp pastry. A little potato fondant thing was fine if fairly ordinary, and some roast veg did the job. But one of the joys of having Beef Wellington is soaking the thing in sauce, and the peppercorn sauce here was pretty bad - bland and unsatisfying and tasting of little more than thickened cream.
Chips were good, though, as you might expect for £5 - triple-cooked to golden brown and crunchy, very much in the Hawksmoor style which if you've ever been there you'll know is a recommendation...
...and for dessert we fell back on the 'free' petits fours, chocolate mint things like a kind of reimagined After Eight. Which were very nice as well.
So, we'd shared a starter, shared a main and skipped dessert, so how on earth did the spend per head still manage to come to £73? A little matter of a ludicrously-priced wine list. If it's true that there's no minimum spend on the food (sort of - it was very nice of them to split the Wellington and they do a cauliflower soup for £11 if you want to play the Cheap Lunch In A Posh Restaurant game) then unfortunately the same can't be said of the booze, where the cheapest - that's the cheapest bottle on the entire list is £48. If even the Ledbury can start its list at £33, then there's no excuse for anywhere else trying it on - when a £16 glass of rosé fizz starts looking like the cheapest pairing with oysters, you know you're in trouble. I realise complaining about the price of booze in one of the most prestigious addresses in London is a bit pointless, but it really took the shine off what would have otherwise been a very enjoyable dinner. And there's just no need for it.
Otherwise, there's plenty to like about Simpson's in the Strand. Yes, it's a ludicrous throwback to a different time (including the clientele - we were the youngest people in there by about 20 years and I was born when John Lennon was still alive) and to take full advantage of every section of the menu would cost a small fortune, but that is, essentially, why people come to these places. To sit in a lovely room, be served by lovely staff, and eat your way through a menu that, despite the odd nod to modernity, hasn't really changed much in the last 100 years. And if that sounds like the kind of thing you'd enjoy, well then help yourself. 7/10
Like most residents of the UK, I used to have a very fixed idea of what an Indian restaurant was. Our nearest curry house growing up occupied a charming old schoolhouse in Formby Village - it's called Hilal Balti House now but chances are in the 80s and 90s it was maybe called Indian Spice or the Taj Mahal or something equally generic. The experience of eating there - well, I'm sure I hardly need to tell you. Paper napkins and floral wallpaper; papadums and chutneys; Korma, Rogan Josh, Vindaloo - the staples of any British high street Indian restaurant, reliable, inexpensive, and in its own way quite wonderful. I'm sure even back in those days there were more exciting mixed grills and Punjabi specials being served to the immigrant communities of Bradford and Burley but for the rest of us, this was a curry, and a curry was this.
Many years after I moved to London I still thought Brick Lane was about as good as it got. I wouldn't have known it's common for many different restaurant fronts to use a shared kitchen at the back, and that some of the Scores on the Doors would be as rare as Michelin stars, but I probably wouldn't have cared even if I did. The same comfort and familiarity of every single Indian (/Bangladeshi/Pakistani) restaurant in the country found an equally captive audience here, amongst the touts and Cash 'n' Carrys of E1.
But before long, my narrow world expanded. Not just thanks to Lahore Kebab House and Tayyabs in Whitechapel, fiercely authentic Pakistani grill houses that I've already banged on about far too much on this blog, but at the top end too, specifically Trishna in Marylebone which opened my eyes as to what fireworks were possible when top ingredients were treated to fiercely intelligent subcontinental cooking. It was literally life-changing food, the kind of thing I didn't even know was possible, and I made a special note of head chef Rohit Ghai in case he popped up anywhere else. And pop up he did. Long story short, Ghai's career since Trishna is basically a list of all my favourite high-end Indian restaurants in London - Gymkhana, Jamavar, Bombay Bustle, and now, Kutir. And there's an argument - a strong argument - that Kutir is perhaps his greatest achievement to date.
At first glance, it's all very Chelsea. The handsome townhouse, the sparkling service, the plush (and nicely spaced) tables. You expect to open the menu and be confronted with the kind of prices that make your mouth go dry but instead - starters average £10-12, mains £16-18, desserts £5-6. It's all incredibly reasonable, and as anyone who's ever eaten there will tell you, Chelsea is not often that.
Another thing that's very un-Chelsea about Kutir is a determination not to reduce the spicing levels. Even a pretty tray of amuses packed a punch - I think a little pastry cylinder of crab and coriander, and neat balls of mushroom croquettes, but don't quote me as they weren't on the menu - a fantastic intro to all that Kutir are about.
Similarly, "Aloo Tikki - Honey Yoghurt' was a fiercely chillified arrangement of potato, tamarind and mint chutney which like all the best Indian vegetarian food was such a riot of texture and colour the lack of a central lump of protein was a complete non-issue.
Lamb chops, vast, plump things cooked to a perfect soft pink inside, used the tandoor sensitively enough to retain moisture but with enough heat to produce a few delightful crunchy spots. The meat was clearly high quality - not overwhelmingly gamey but with a lovely soft, lamb-y profile - but Ghai's tikka spicing is next-level, an utter masterclass in balance and power. Right up there with the very best high-end lamb chops you're ever likely to come across.
"Dhokla - Apple" was another bewilderingly complex, and equally rewarding, vegetarian dish. Gram flour cake - sharp and spicy - was surrounded by various early spring vegetables such as radish and beetroot, and sweetened with honey.
And this, what is fast becoming a Kutir signature dish - (excellent) naan bread topped with shredded roast quail, scrambled egg and real black truffle, an unusual combination of flavours and textures on paper but which we demolished seconds after the first bite. It's notable how Kutir plays with the expectations and demands of the Chelsea audience, with its veggie-friendly options and premium ingredients, while at the same time retaining all of the charm and authenticity of Indian cuisine. It's a tricky balancing act that they've got spot-on.
Sea bass, a nice neat fillet with a good crisp skin, came resting in a tomato and coconut curry so rich and satisfying even if the dish had consisted of nothing but that, it would have still been worth the £16. Also, one of the best things about any Indian Subcontinent restaurant, at any budget, is that leftovers eaten after the event sometimes even better than they did on the day. Kutir are happy to package up anything you can't finish, and I thoroughly recommend you do so if you managed to over-order like we did.
Duck korma suffered only slightly from a rather unappealing dump of sauce on top - strange where everything else had looked so immaculate. However it's a pleasure to report the duck itself was incredible - soft, gently spiced and full of flavour, with a side of pickled swede being the accompaniment we didn't know we wanted but now can hardly imagine duck with anything else.
The final savoury course was jackfruit 'kofta' - marvellously meaty and greaseless - in another knockout curry sauce studded with spinach. Snazzy presentation too, under a pastry arch.
Desserts weren't quite as innovative or notable as the savouries, but we still polished them off. Mango and passionfruit sorbet were packed with fruity flavours and had a perfect smooth texture...
...and yes, chocolate and banana is hardly a staggeringly unique concept but the banana fritters were crunchy and addictive, and the chocolate had a good balance of sugar, cacao and dairy. Which is all you can ask for, really.
Our bill was slightly reduced thanks to a spot of the old blogger privilege, but as you can see even at full price this would have been a £50/head meal, including a bottle of nice Chardonnay, incredible value for this level of food, and in this part of town.
As much as I ever know how I'm going to react any restaurant on the day, I knew for sure I was going to enjoy Kutir. Rohit Ghai's restaurants have never been anything less than superb, each with their own distinct style (and all coming highly recommended, even now) but always offering the kind of thoughtful, studied take on Indian food that so many places attempt but so few get right. But perhaps due to a greater level of control of the menu after a string of high-profile collaborations, or just simply because practice makes perfect, this seems to be the restaurant that reflects most accurately - and most brilliantly - the style and attitude of cooking he's been pointing towards all along. It may come with somewhat less of the practiced elegance of Gymkhana and the like, but what it lacks in polish it makes up in heart, and it's impossible not to be defeated by its charms. So why resist? Book yourself in - you won't regret it.
I was invited to try Kutir, then liked it so much I went back and paid. All the above happened on my 2nd visit. Sorry for the terrible photos, it's dark in there.
I often think the most difficult thing to do in the world of restaurants is occupy the middle ground. If you're either a no-holds-barred Mayfair fine dining palace of splurge, or alternatively an ultra-low-budget dining hall in the New Cross, your audiences know exactly what to expect (and what they might expect to pay) and you've got no further explaining to do. But a mid-range restaurant will have to persuade a more moneyed clientele that the dip in prices and décor is still made up for in competent food, and that the budget diner will find enough above their usual spend per head to consider the odd indulgence.
It's a balancing act, one fraught with danger, but get it right and your middle-ground restaurant stands a chance of beating both the high- and low- end joints at their own game. And here to make the case for friendly, dependable mid-range Chinese is Shikumen in Shepherd's Bush, where you'll spend neither a pittance or an arm and a leg but stand a very good chance of coming away with one of the most rewarding Cantonese dining experiences in town.
The devil, as ever, is in the detail. Har gau were sticky and plump, with plenty of prawn filling and piping hot. Dipped in the house flaked chilli oil or hot sauce (both are great) this was top dumpling work.
Turnip puffs were an interesting delicate cone shape (and therefore less overwhelmingly carb-y than they can be)...
...cheung fun were excellent, both the crunchy dough stick variety and the prawn and bean curd, both of which impressed in different ways with their textures and strong flavours. I'm yet to discover a way of eating these slippery little fellas with chopsticks that doesn't involve abject humiliation on my part, but fortunately thanks to my friend being half an hour late and it being towards the end of service, not many people were around to witness it.
Oddly the only element of the dim sum that didn't completely win us over were the Xiao Long Bao. They were admittedly cleverly and precisely made little things, with a good amount of soupy filling and delicate casings, but the flavours veered between self-consciously wacky - cheese, or squid ink - and ever-so-slightly-too-plain pork. Still worth ordering, but not quite up to the level of the Din Tai Fung crab & pork.
But hold your presses everyone, because Shikumen are about far more than dim sum. I've been lucky enough to have fairly high-end roast Peking duck at various places in town - Hutong's was good though I've not been for years, as was Gold Mine in Bayswater. But this here was on another level - skin so light and delicately treated it just dissolved in the mouth, and neat slices of tender flesh that had a awe-inspiring balance of fresh game and soft fat. It was utterly lovely, so much so that rather than assembling the flesh inside steamed pancakes and dressing with hoi sin like we were supposed to, I ended up just eating the meat by itself, revelling in the complexity of taste and texture. If there's a better roast duck in London I'll be very surprised.
The joy of the duck didn't end with the pancake course, either, or the first few slices of golden skin dipped in sugar. After we'd had our fill of the former, two bowls of opaque duck soup were brought out, studded with spring onions and thickened with soy milk, which drew yet another bewilderingly complex set of flavours and textures from the bird. If you should ever go to Shikumen - and you very much should - to leave without ordering the duck would be a mistake on the level of going to Flatiron and ordering a salad.
So, for excellent dim sum and a truly world class roast duck, paying £45 a head including service and a couple of beers sounds like something approaching a bargain. If treading the middle ground of any particular cuisine's offering is difficult - and it undoubtedly is - it only means that when it does go right, it goes very right and we end up blessed with an operation like Shikumen who can hardly be faulted at all, treated either as an occasional special occasion or your new neighbourhood go-to Cantonese diner. But however you choose to approach Shikumen, I hope you enjoy it every bit as much as I did. Oh, and order the duck.
We were invited to Shikumen and though this time we did SEE the bill, we didn't pay it.
To be completely honest, Henrietta wasn't our first choice restaurant for this particular evening. We had first tried our luck at Flatiron next door, only to be told the wait, on a cold Thursday night, was two hours. Next we tried Din Tai Fung, which would have been my third visit in the space of a week (very happily so), only to find out that would be an hour or so as well. So we split the distance, and tried our luck at Henrietta, where fortunately they managed to find room for the two of us on a large table near the kitchens usually reserved for parties of six or more. The front of house's accommodating nature, especially given the previous knockbacks, came as a very welcome relief; even if the food had only been OK, we still would have been pretty happy.
In the end, the food was largely much better than OK - not perfect across the board, but thoughtful, and attractive, and generally pretty good value. In case you weren't aware, Henrietta began life as the second solo venture for chef Ollie Dabbous, and by all accounts did more than enough to occupy his time before the vast, flashy Hide opened on Piccadilly. These days by all accounts he's not involved, but it's hard to shake the feeling that these precise, attractive dishes owe more than a little debt to his style (described as "game-changing" back in the day by Fay Maschler) even if the ingredients are now more solidly Mediterranean than Modern British.
By accident rather than design (we ordered fairly quickly, still mildly frazzled from being knocked back and FlatIron and DTF), we ended up with three raw meat dishes. Best of the bunch was the tuna tartare, topped with a generous amount of truffle, and bound with an umami-rich tahini dressing. There was more main ingredient than you had any right to expect for £14, and full marks too for using real winter truffle instead of the tasteless cheaper variety.
Beef tartare came in a little canopy of sliced raw mushroom, if I'm being brutal probably more about aesthetics than taste, but still enjoyable enough. The beef was enhanced with a few chunks of anchovy - always a nice match - and was certainly amongst the better raw beef dishes I've been served in recent months. Also, at £10, one of the best value.
Unfortunately, octopus carpaccio was not a success. Completely devoid of seasoning and flavour, it was like eating a plate of soggy tissue paper - even little blobs of puréed avocado managed to be utterly without personality. Also, isn't it funny/annoying that whenever restaurants season their food perfectly there's always redundant salt & pepper shakers on the table, but whenever you're in desperate need to add your own seasoning they're nowhere to be seen? With a bit of table salt this may have been somewhat salvaged - without, it was a chore.
So Henrietta Bistro aren't perfect. But how many places are? And one dish wasn't enough to spoil our evening, especially when we could fill up on an absolutely superb sticky sourdough spread with espelette (chilli) butter. If I was a professional critic I'd probably have made an effort to discover whether they make the bread in-house or get it in from somewhere like E5 bakehouse or Hedone, but all you need to know is that it was very good.
The unreconstructed reverse-snob in me couldn't help finishing the meal on burger and chips, and I'm very glad I did. Powerfully-flavoured Basque beef blended with txistorra (a kind of chorizo) was exactly medium-rare and wonderfully juicy, and the soft cheese they'd used had both enough funk to match the beef and a great melted texture. It's true that I'd still rather it all came in a normal seeded burger bun than a floury English muffin (not sure of the thinking behind that) but it was still a very nice thing for £10.
Chips were basically perfect. Golden brown (ignore my useless iPhone photography), crunchy outside and creamy within, seasoned perfectly and with a good, rich potato flavour dusted only gently with dried rosemary, they instantly go near the top of my personal best chips in London list, alongside Hawksmoor's triple cooked and the beef dripping chips at Blacklock. It would be worth coming to Henrietta Bistro for these alone - these are seriously destination chips.
A couple of things I wouldn't order again, and many things I very much would, still adds up to a meal worth talking about. With a glass of wine the bill came to £68 for two, which is essentially right in the sweet spot of what you'd expect to pay for food like this, and is hardly unreasonable. True, it was our third choice out of three restaurants that evening, and probably deserves to be, but in a road containing so many big-hitters (please do go to Flatiron and Din Tai Fung, they're great) that they can still hold their head high in such company is much to be applauded. On another cold Thursday evening with my first choices oversubscribed, I could easily find myself back. That said, if I was in the mood for some chips, I wouldn't try anywhere else first at all.
7/10 Apologies for the bad photos - it was dark in there, and I didn't have my Big Camera.